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Stephen Colbert’s Late-Night Success Isn’t a Fluke

The former satirist is coming into his own as a politically driven late-night host, and he’s got the ratings to prove it

(CBS/Ringer illustration)
(CBS/Ringer illustration)

2017 marks 20 years since Stephen Colbert’s first appearance on The Daily Show, the job that would start him on the trajectory to his current gig as the host of The Late Show on CBS. This year also marks the beginning of Colbert’s newfound comfort with broadcast-TV late night, a platform he’s finally figured out how to infuse with the openly political style that made him famous. What began as a seeming fluke in the first full week of the Trump presidency is now starting to look like a new reality: Colbert has been consistently beating his NBC rival Jimmy Fallon in overall viewers for months now, a trend edging ever closer to a status quo. The gap between the shows has only widened in areas favorable to Colbert, beating Fallon by over 400,000 same-day viewers last week, and narrowed in those favorable to Fallon, whose lead in the 18–49 demo shrunk to just 99,000 viewers in the same time period.

What better way to celebrate than getting the Daily Show gang back together? The actual anniversary of Colbert’s Daily Show tenure won’t come until later this summer, so for logistical reasons — to say nothing of ratings — Colbert and his former colleagues held their summit Tuesday night. Jon Stewart, an executive producer on Colbert’s Late Show as well as his friend and former boss, has been a frequent guest in the Ed Sullivan Theater, but Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Ed Helms, and Rob Corddry also stopped by for a convivial celebration of how far their cohort, though especially Colbert, has come.

The reunion was fun enough, but the most fitting tribute to Colbert’s status as a Daily Show alumnus came at the very beginning of the broadcast, when the host was alone onstage and his guests had yet to be introduced. Minutes before the show’s early evening taping, Colbert and his writers had been blindsided by a startling piece of breaking news: Donald Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey. The comedian and his team somehow managed to put together a topical monologue in the precious little time allotted — an unplanned callback to Colbert’s live Election Night special, another show in which Colbert had to deliver an impromptu response to an unforeseen political development. “I think he was fired because Comey couldn’t guess the name ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’” Colbert smirked, getting in a swipe at the diminutive Jeff Sessions while noting that Comey’s firing came at the attorney general’s recommendation. It’s this puckish clowning, coming on the heels of genuine outrage (“My heart is thumping, my pulse is racing!”) at the news, that positions him as a Stewart disciple.

After a year of creative and financial struggles that resulted in CBS-mandated shifts like the hiring of showrunner Chris Licht — Colbert had previously shouldered much of the show’s administrative responsibilities himself — the host is savoring his victory lap. He reportedly treats his staff to a Tuesday pizza lunch every week their show bests Fallon’s; CBS sends a press release each time the numbers work out in Colbert’s favor. (Like clockwork, another dispatch arrived as I was writing this: The Late Show placed first once again, up 15 percent in viewers over last week and more than 40 percent over last year.) And while Variety’s Oriana Schwindt pointed out early on that the shifts in viewership weren’t particularly dramatic (a matter of 100,000 viewers out of around 3 million, give or take) and had more to do with a slipping Fallon than a rising Colbert, that didn’t make the contrast between the two hosts any less neat: the shallow youngster whose party tricks had gotten stale versus the substantive father figure whose time had finally come. Whichever way you slice it, viewers just seem to like Colbert better at the moment, a fact that has everything to do with a present moment that has more use for a Daily Show–descendant firebrand than an apolitical court jester.

Look at the Late Show bits that have made waves lately and you’ll start to see a pattern. The interviews have shifted from politicians and intellectuals in favor of celebrities, but the movie star footprint within the show has noticeably shrunk: They come, they leave, and with the exception of Casey Affleck, they rarely make an impression. Meanwhile, when a Colbert segment breaks through to the larger TV ecosphere, it’s usually for something like drawing a swastika while ostensibly talking about Trump’s campaign, or impersonating conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, or going off on James Comey’s congressional testimony. The revamped show uses much of the playfulness that fueled The Colbert Report — what is an Alex Jones impersonation if not an amped-up version of Colbert’s nine-year-long Bill O’Reilly? Now, though, there’s an extra dose of anger and disgust Colbert couldn’t directly channel in character on his previous show. And all of it is pegged to current events.

On cable, calling Trump Vladimir Putin’s “cock holster,” as Colbert did last week, might still attract controversy — it is not a nuanced joke — but not necessarily governmental oversight. On the Eye, they earned a #FireColbert retaliatory hashtag calling for Colbert’s job, and the notice of the Federal Communications Commission, whose chairman announced it would review submitted complaints about the cock holster remarks and their potential obscenity. (The “cock” was dutifully bleeped out on air.) Much more than the content of The Late Show, it is its context — specifically, its presence on CBS — that affords it a whiff of defiance. Colbert is operating on a platform where sitting versus standing constitutes a stylistic choice of enormous magnitude; such is the rigidity of the form that physically lowering your body seven to 10 minutes earlier than custom dictates is considered a radical break from tradition. Consequently, the differences between Fallon and Colbert are inevitably exaggerated by the need for a good story and an even better conflict. Fallon does Trump jokes, even if they’re several degrees duller than Colbert’s, and Colbert does silly recurring bits with famous people, even if they’re less likely to bloom into viral franchises than Fallon’s. Both men are ultimately doing only slightly varied renditions of the same job: chatting with famous people, starring in comedy bits, and serving as a network brand ambassador. There is far more that connects Colbert to Fallon than to genuinely experimental comics like Eric Andre or The President Show’s Anthony Atamanuik.

But the press and viewing public latch onto and magnify their minor differences anyway. Start with the monologue: It’s a standard component of the late-night formula, and Colbert hasn’t innovated the form in any significant way. Over the past few months, though, the monologue has nonetheless developed into his trademark. It is the purest conveyance of Colbert’s proudly liberal political leanings, no longer hidden behind “Stephen Colbert’s” mask of irony, and the most consistently popular segment on the all-important next-day aggregation circuit. Just look at The Late Show’s YouTube page: Colbert’s introductions consistently crack seven figures, while his affable guest interviews are lucky if they hit six. Not coincidentally, the focus on the monologue has overlapped with the overall ascendancy of Colbert’s Late Show, first in the eyes of critics (starting with his coverage of the Republican National Convention and continuing through his Election Night roast-turned-dirge on Showtime), and then in the ratings.

There’s a reason Colbert’s audience, and Colbert himself, glommed so quickly onto the idea that the host was the subject of a political witch hunt by the FCC. There’s a reason entertainer and fans alike continued to do so even when the agency simply turned out to be following standard procedure, not opening an “investigation.” Colbert triumphantly opened his first post-#FireColbert show with a faux-surprised “I’m still the host!” Viewers are hungry for someone who can simultaneously contextualize, trivialize, and distract from the news. Colbert has the distinct advantage of having done all that before — not just at his current gig, but at the two before that. By gathering Colbert, Bee, and Oliver under one roof, Tuesday night’s special event was only the latest reminder that Colbert is a studied hand at fusing comedy with current events.

Colbert may be the most prominent and consistent example of audiences’ hunger for Daily Show–style political comedy, but he’s hardly the only one. Correspondent Hasan Minhaj just hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and Bee, too, has seen her ratings crawl steadily upward in the wake of the election. Outside the Stewart extended family, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel dominated a news cycle with an emotional monologue about his newborn son’s heart condition that turned toward the ongoing congressional debate over health care; in a follow-up this Monday, Kimmel responded to the appallingly yet unsurprisingly partisan backlash and spoke with Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy about a so-called “Jimmy Kimmel Test” for a potential bill. At a time when politics feels particularly and dangerously close to our everyday lives, entertainment that engages with politics will naturally get our attention.

2017 thus far has been a validation for Colbert and his prep-school history teacher version of late night’s otherwise rigid template (middle-aged, white, male). Colbert’s success has also been a validation of the talent farm from which he emerged. While Jon Stewart enjoys retirement out in New Jersey, his successors have fanned out across broadcast and cable, offering an updated model from Johnny Carson or even Colbert predecessor David Letterman’s studied impartiality. Colbert’s Late Show presents the most mainstream iteration of the Stewart model yet — and after a year of tinkering, it’s finally working, and showing no signs of slowing down.